When they got to the park, they found the other members of their group huddled under a tree, shovels and half-full buckets of earth abandoned. A few of the younger children were crying and the older ones were trying to calm them down.
“It’s okay,” a girl named Riley insisted. “It was just your imagination.”
“An ordinary van,” said Parker, one of the guards. “And even if it was them, what do you think I’m here for? Decoration?”
“What’s going on?” Cassie asked. Between the wailing children and Leila’s preference for shopping, they’d be lucky to get so much as a single bucket of dirt collected.
“Brats thought they saw some Obits,” Parker said. “As if they would go driving around in broad daylight or something.”
“But it was them!” a boy insisted. “You just don’t want to admit it. You’re scared, too!”
“I am not. They don’t want me. Just little ones like you.”
“Stop that,” Cassie said. “You’re upsetting them.” She looked at each of the younger children in turn. “There’s no more vans and we’re here to protect you. Now let’s dig so we can go back to the hotel and plant potatoes.”
Two children picked up their shovels and sullenly poked at the ground, but the youngest ones stared at her, unmoved.
“See?” Parker said. “They’re hopeless. Might as well let the Obits have them. It’ll be fewer people to eat potatoes.”
“You wouldn’t say that if my father was here!” a girl said.
“But he isn’t, is he?” Parker smirked. “He’s rotting in a pit like all the others.” He began walking across the grass, back toward the hotel.
Some of the children ran after him, shrieking, while the ones who remained stared at Cassie with big eyes. Although she would’ve liked to have screamed with frustration too, Cassie forced herself to take a breath. “Let’s get to work,” she said, gesturing toward the shovels. “I promise you’ll be safe.”
* * *
Their first load of dirt was so pitiful in relation to the size of the swimming pool that Cassie wanted to cry. It didn’t help that the youngest children refused to return to the park, fearing Obits. Since they were slow workers and not very strong, Cassie told herself it didn’t matter. She and Leila rounded up the older children and they made two more trips, not collecting enough dirt to fill even a single corner to the depth that would be required. Discouraged, Cassie sat on the edge of the pool in the late afternoon sunlight, wondering what to do next.
“I thought I’d find you here.”
She turned to see Galahad walking toward her, a plastic bag of potting soil balanced on one shoulder. As he approached the pool and peered in, she watched his face for a reaction.
He stared for a long moment at the inadequate scattering of dirt, then ripped open his plastic bag and tossed in the rich black soil. “I’ve got two more downstairs,” he said. “But it looks like we’ll need a different strategy if we’re going to have a garden before we’re old enough for the Telo to get us.”
“That’s what I was thinking. Too bad we can’t do this in one of the parks.”
“Too dangerous. And someone would likely come along and dig them up, anyway. But there’s got to be a way to make this work.” Galahad squinted at the pool. “Couldn’t we just bring in enough dirt to make rows, with walkways in between?”
“How would we keep the dirt in place? If we pile it up, it’ll erode when we water the plants.”
“There’s all kinds of scrap around. We could make boxes of some kind.”
Cassie considered. “If there was proper drainage, it might work.”
“Maybe Sid could design something for us.” When Cassie hesitated, he added, “I’m sure he likes potatoes as much as anyone else. Since he considers himself an engineer it should be an easy job for him.”
They went downstairs and found Sid in the lobby doing things with foil and cardboard boxes. “Getting too warm outside to keep building a fire in the kitchen grill,” he explained. “Heats up the whole place, not to mention it’s always been a fire and carbon monoxide danger. We’re going to start testing solar box cookers as soon as I get a few made.”
“My family had one at our retreat,” Cassie said, taking a closer look. “I didn’t know they could be made with foil.” She picked up one of the diagrams on a coffee table. “This looks familiar. What are you going to use for the window part?”
“There’s broken glass everywhere,” Sid said with a wave of his hand. “And if it doesn’t suit, I’ll break more.”
“What we actually came here for,” Galahad said, “Was to talk to you about our potato garden.”
Sid fixed him with a withering look. “I’m an engineer, not a farmer or landscape designer.”
“And if you want something to cook in your shiny box, you’ll help us out. Consider it civil engineering.”
They locked eyes and Sid looked away first. “Okay. But if I help you design something, that doesn’t mean I’m going to build it for you, too. And I’ll need some help with these box cookers to compensate for my time.”
“I’ll help,” Cassie said. “I know what they’re supposed to look like, so it’s no trouble. I’ll even teach Sandra how to use them.”
Reluctantly, Sid got to his feet. “Okay, show me this potato project.”